03/14/2006 4:07 AM ET
Team USA may not have Damon
Center fielder's injured shoulder could end up sidelining him
By Barry M. Bloom / MLB.com
ANAHEIM -- If the United States is to survive the second round of the inaugural World Baseball Classic, the Americans may have to do it without Johnny Damon.
The New York Yankees' new center fielder said on Monday night that because of a sore left shoulder, he has been shut down from throwing for a few days by Team USA trainers in consultation with Yankees general manager Brian Cashman. Damon said he had spoken with Cashman personally on Sunday.
"It's been bothering me for the last couple of days," Damon told several reporters after the U.S. dropped a crucial 7-3 decision to Korea at Angel Stadium. "It's just kind of Spring Training tiredness. As much as I want to push it, I don't want to take any chances with [Yankees principal owner George Steinbrenner]."
The U.S. may only be able to use Damon as a pinch-hitter or designated hitter in what could be Thursday night's make-or-break showdown with Mexico. First, the U.S. needs either the Mexicans or Koreans to defeat the Japanese on Tuesday or Wednesday night for that game to even matter.
And if the U.S. moves on to the semifinals and finals this coming Saturday and Monday in San Diego's PETCO Park, Damon could be replaced on the 30-man roster. A player can be replaced in between rounds only in the case of injury or bereavement.
But USA Baseball isn't left with many viable outfield options. There are six on the current roster, but the four others on the 52-man provisional roster -- Barry Bonds, Lance Berkman, Carl Crawford and Luis Gonzalez -- all opted out for either injury or personal reasons.
"That's up to Buck," said Damon, referring to U.S. manager Buck Martinez. "I'm going to let him run his roster. You have to have as much respect for him as possible. I'd love to be healthy enough to be with the team, but if that's not a possibility, I wouldn't want to try and play and take up a spot."
Damon, who played center field for the 2004 Boston Red Sox team that won its first World Series title in 86 years, signed a four-year, $52 million contract with the Yankees this past offseason. Damon, 32, is replacing incumbent Bernie Williams, and big things are expected of him from Steinbrenner, who has been vocal in his opposition of his players participating in the tournament.
Damon is joined on the U.S. squad by Yankees teammates Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Al Leiter. Williams is playing for Puerto Rico.
Damon said he would continue his Spring Training conditioning by doing his running and riding a stationary bike, and would resume taking batting practice perhaps as soon as Tuesday, but he said the Yankees were obviously his top priority.
"We talked to the [Team USA] trainers and the [Yankees] trainers," Damon said, "[and] Cashman. They all agreed that it would be a good idea to shut it down for a short period of time. You don't want to push anything in Spring Training. You want to get ready for the [regular season] games. That's the important thing. I talked to Cash. I told him everything is fine. I'm just a little tired. I just needed a little break."
Reporters began to suspect that something was up on Monday night, when Martinez didn't have Damon in the starting lineup for the second consecutive game. Damon has been playing left field in the tournament with Ken Griffey Jr. in center. On Monday, Martinez subbed in Colorado Rockies left fielder Matt Holliday, who is now 0-for-7 in the Classic.
The plot thickened when Damon (1-for-7 with no RBIs) didn't emerge from the clubhouse before the game for either stretching or batting practice, missing his assigned hitting group.
Martinez said at first that there was nothing physically wrong with Damon, but just before the game began, a USA Baseball spokesman said Damon had worked out in the indoor cages and was nursing a sore shoulder.
"Johnny Damon is cool with everything," Martinez said when asked if he had spoken to the outfielder about the current situation. "He understands what's going on here and the challenges of winning this tournament. We'll use his bat, and I'm sure he will be very important to us before all is said and done."